Sunday, 27 July 2014

Two Fathers

Encouraged by friends old and new I have decided to dip my toe back into the blogging stream. The issue is: what to write about? Some three years after autologous stem cell transplant (ASCT) I remain well and my blood counts, taken every three months, are currently normal. Apart from boring old psoriasis—reasserting itself after the drubbing it received as a collateral target of high-dose chemo—and the back problem I have described in these online pages I have no apparent health niggles.

The reality of course is that, lurking in my DNA, there are the seeds of further disruption to health, comfort and peace of mind, but I am not just going to sit around waiting for the little blighters to germinate and work their mischief. My subject, I have decided, must remain life and love, inevitably altered and coloured by illness and its associations, but for the moment—for want of a better word—normal.

So what is happening now? I have been writing this on trains to and from Waterloo, journeys I make at least four times in the working week. Recently I was on the same tracks, my final destination being the church office where I earn my daily bread. I settled down to read a new book ("White Noise" by Don Delillo, since you ask), but was very soon aware of a conversation taking place in the seats behind me, which—it rapidly became clear—was between a father and his small daughter, who sounded about four years old. The father spoke in soft, measured tones, and was a model of the best sort of attention an adult can give to a child: engaged, patient and resolutely unpatronising.

The little girl, plainly bright, remarked on the terrace of cottages that ran parallel to the tracks as our train pulled out of Twickenham station: "The people who live in those houses would hear trains all the time, I imagine. Just like WE hear planes ALL the time". Since these points seem lost on a number of our local councillors and town planners, I was immediately impressed and found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on my book, but this was no nuisance but a nourishing conversation, refreshingly unlike the one-sided version of bombastic business deals or nattery trivia often inflicted on their fellow commuters by mobile phone users.

The conversation continued with the father outlining the plan of the day, which was going to include a look at The Houses of Parliament and a visit to the Natural History Museum, where be (of course) dinosaurs: large enough to inspire awe and apprehension; lifeless enough to do no harm. 

As the train went past the high-rise construction sites near Vauxhall, there was the following exchange, begun by the girl:
"I want to be a builder."
"What would you like to build?"
"A castle."
"Not much call for castles these days."
"Well, I'M going to build a castle and LIVE in it!"

That's the spirit. To think of the sort of pressures later experience—what older and better writers might have referred to as "the world, the flesh and the devil"— might (make that "will") bring to bear on this young consciousness is distressing, but I could not help reflecting on what an excellent chance in life her kind father was giving her: outings, his close attention and willingness to listen, his time...

The second stage of my journey was on the Waterloo & City Line and I turned my attention—as I sometimes do, given the short time available between the only two stops on the line—to that day's copy of London's free rag, "Metro". 

There I read of the trial of a man who had shaken his baby to death because the child's crying was disturbing his video game. The more I have thought of this harrowing case, the more stark has been the contrast between the two fathers I had encountered that morning: the one in the nearby train seat and the one mentioned in the paper. While there must always be appropriate caution about the accuracy of any newspaper report and in making less than a fully informed judgment about anyone accused of serious crime, the story of the dead child and his father seemed so emblematic of just how any one of us might be able, in a shockingly brief instant, to change the course of our own life and the lives of numerous others in a truly ruinous way. The accused father, driven by the quest for mastery of a fantasy universe, had abused the most serious position of actual control and responsibility one might have in this mortal life.

While we rail at him and the court metes out punishment and we all get a chance to weigh the outcomes of time spent engaging with our electronic devices as against what we naturally regard as "real life", a small, fragile life has been snuffed out, but so much else besides: all the opportunities for the blessings of relationship and meaning that would have flowed towards this man and his partner (who had entrusted the child to him while she embarked on a course of study away from home). My thoughts have been dwelling much on questions of parenthood in recent months, as both the children my wife and I rejoice to have brought into the world have just graduated from university. On this particular morning, all I could think of was that this young father would never hear from his child the words I had heard the little girl say to her father on the train (and whose utterance by my own children is the stuff of my most treasured memories): "I love you Daddy".

There IS beauty in the world xx